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Can Kentucky Keep Charging Prisoners for Their Jail Stay if They Are Found Not Guilty?

That’s what happened to David Jones, who was held for 14 months in the Clark County Detention Center in 2013 before the state conceded that Jones was innocent of the charges. He was released, but not without a departing gift from the jail: a bill for over $4,000 to cover the cost of his incarceration.

After an initial payment, Jones filed a lawsuit in the federal and state courts, claiming that the law was unconstitutional. But the courts disagreed and dismissed his lawsuits. First, the federal court ruled that because Jones was billed for his stay in jail after his release and no money was taken from him out of his control, he had no constitutional claim. The state court then agreed with the federal court. The court also rejected the Supreme Court’s decision in Nelson v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 1249 (2017), which held that it’s unconstitutional for the government to keep fines paid by those are found not guilty. The court said that fees for the cost of incarceration are different.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals was divided, however, on the ruling in Jones’ case, with a sharp dissent from Judge Sara Combs, who urged the Supreme Court to take the case. She called it a “glaringly unjust state of affairs.”

This is not how Kentucky’s law is supposed to work, said former Kentucky Senate President David Williams, who wrote the law. He said he doesn’t understand what authority the state has in taking money from prisoners found not guilty. “There is a constitutional issue for charging jail fees to someone who is innocent.” Williams is now a circuit court judge in southern Kentucky.

The law, though, has been a windfall for the state’s jails. Over the last two decades since the law was enacted, Kentucky jails have made millions from its prisoners, according to WDRB News. And when someone doesn’t pay, more than half the jails use collection agencies to go after the money.

“I’ve never understood why nobody in charge of a jail, nobody on a fiscal court, has ever stopped and said, ‘Wait a minute, aren’t these people entitled to a presumption of innocence? Can we really do this?’” Greg Belzley, Jones’ lawyer, said. He vowed to keep fighting. “This is fundamental,” he said. “And as long as I’ve got breath, I’m fighting this.” Expect the case to make its way before the Kentucky Supreme Court. See: Jones v. Clark County, 2020 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 98. 


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Related legal case

Jones v. Clark County